HOPE's health has been threatened by rising tuition costs and growing student enrollment, even as funds from the state lottery - which underwrites the scholarships and the state's pre-K program - continue to grow. At the present rate, the HOPE program will have spent all its reserves by next year. It's clear that changes must be made, and to his credit, Deal seems ready to bite that bullet.
Till now, any student with a 3.0 grade point average in high school was eligible for free college tuition in Georgia. Deal is proposing that the "full ride" henceforth be limited to students who earn a 3.7 GPA or better and who earn at least a 1200 on the SAT. Roughly 10 percent of those who now enjoy the HOPE would continue to be eligible for it under those guidelines.
Meanwhile, students who earn at least a 3.0 GPA would have 90 percent of their tuition paid by HOPE under the governor's plan.
Additionally, HOPE would no longer pay for student's fees or books or, in a long overdue step, for them to take remedial classes at college. Students whose low college grades cost them their scholarship could regain it by hiking their grades, but would have only one chance to do so. Also, high school students would have to take more rigorous classes to qualify for HOPE. It's about time.
On the pre-K level, Deal's plan would trim the program to four hours a day from 6 , but that also would allow the state to add 5,000 additional slots.
Critics have rightly complained of the huge bonuses pocketed by top lottery officials, and Deal is proposing to henceforth limit them to 25 percent of their base compensation (which still seems quite a lot) and would tie those bonuses to an increase in net proceeds from the prior year that were transferred to the HOPE/pre-K fund. He also would cut the commission paid to lottery retailers to 5 percent on gross sales from 7 percent.
The HOPEs were the brainchild in 1993 of then-Gov. Zell Miller, and Deal is proposing that students who earn the full-tuition scholarship be known as "Zell Miller Scholars." That would be entirely appropriate, especially inasmuch as Miller was a college professor before he went into politics.
Deal's proposal won cautious support from a wide spectrum. University of Georgia President Dr. Michael Adams was supportive.
"We certainly are going to have to work hard to increase outside scholarships in some other areas to make this up," he said. "We can't lose sight of the fact that at 90 percent of HOPE, we're still the best bargain in America. We're not quite as good a bargain as we were a year ago, but we should be able to sustain ourselves."
It is clear that something must be done to staunch the hemorrhaging of funds from the HOPE program. The changes proposed by Gov. Deal are reasonable, and they or something very similar deserve serious consideration by the legislature to ensure the continued viability of this cornerstone program.